No.34 Dover-Calais

“Nearly Swampt”

Inspired by Turner’s maritime paintings, the theme this week is the Dover-Calais crossing. To set the scene, please do have a look at the National Gallery’s Calais Pier (1803).

In the centre of the action is a French fishing vessel with a white sail putting out in a boisterous sea, looking as if it is about to collide with the English packet (regular ferry service for passengers and mails) coming in, crammed to the gills with passengers, the Union Jack wound round itself in the gale. It all looks quite perilous, with a bit of artistic licence allowed – it’s not so perilous that a stream of little fishing vessels can’t put out to sea! This painting is partially based on a number of Turner’s sketches which survive from 1802, his first journey abroad, one of which notes that he was “nearly swampt” on arrival at Calais.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant passage (the weather, as Turner shows, being somewhat rough that week in July 1802) and it was probably longer than the quick voyage of 3.5 hours recorded by Joseph Farington, Turner’s fellow artist, the following month. (Compare 90 minutes today.)

Occasionally it genuinely was dangerous: we have 4 recorded instances of a Dover-Calais vessel being lost at Dover between 1770 and 1820, and there would probably have been more, but for the interruption of the service during an international dispute with a certain M. Bonaparte in the latter part of that period! By coincidence, there was actually an incident in the year of Turner’s voyage, 1802, but in the reverse direction. The Flèche French packet, while attempting to enter Dover, ‘mistook the stern head for the entrance to the harbour and ran on shore.’ In 1820, the Flora ‘missed stays’ in a ‘heavy gale at S by W’ while leaving Dover. It sounds as if there was a bit of a scramble to get ashore, but everyone did so before the ship went to pieces.

I wonder if they were ‘nearly swampt’ too?

No.33 Durham and the Farne Islands

Power and Piety

A recent visit to the Farne Islands observing diving ops, followed by a trip to Durham to see the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition, inspired me to look at the ways in which the See of Durham and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne are intertwined in terms of wrecks.

In 1320 a ship laden with wool and hides was lost near Holy Island. The Bishop of Durham, Lewis de Beaumont, claimed the cargo since the wreck lay ‘within the Bishop’s liberty of Norham’, wherein he had ‘regal rights’ – the Bishops of Durham were, after all, Prince Bishops! The wool was arrested in Newcastle on its way south, since Robert the Bruce in his turn laid claim to it, following a treaty at ‘Twedemuth’. The treaty notwithstanding, Edward II upheld the Bishop’s rights in this matter.

In 1534, Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall dealt with a ‘Scotch ship’ stranded within his bishopric. James V of Scotland complained on behalf of his subjects, who accused locals of plundering the ship – a fairly typical accusation, which, in being escalated to the highest level, has preserved a shipwreck in the official record. Tunstall, clearly with an eye to Henry VIII’s finances, felt that offering ‘full reparation against all who could be proved to have offended’ was one thing, but ‘full value, as if the goods had arrived undamaged’ was a step too far! He thereby demonstrated a shrewdness which enabled him to survive the subsequent religious upheavals under Henry and his children, before eventually meeting his match in Elizabeth I.

Nathaniel, Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham 1674-1721, married a Bamburgh heiress, and between them they posthumously influenced the outcome of shipwrecks on the Farne Islands and Bamburgh for the better. From his wife he inherited considerable estates in Northumberland, stipulating in his own will that surpluses from these assets be charitably distributed. From at least 1776 shipwrecked mariners were succoured by Lord Crewe’s charity, noted with approbation by the newspapers of the day.

The Scotsmen from the Friendship wrecked on the Farne Islands in 1796 met with a better reception than their predecessors in 1534: being ‘liberally supplied from Bamburgh Castle, by the noble charity of the late Lord Crewe.’ I shall close with the happy ending to the ordeal suffered by the sole survivor of the John’s Adventure which struck near the Castle itself the following year:

‘[he] held by some part of the wreck till she righted, when he took his station on that part of the mast, which remained above water. As soon as he was discovered, every exertion was made by the steward of the castle for his relief, and a boat was just putting off when they discovered his deliverers making toward him from off Waren Bar. When brought to land he was much swelled, and had nearly lost the use of his speech, sight, and limbs, but by the care of the Dispensers of Lord Crewe’s noble charity, he is happily restored.’

Have a great weekend!

No.32: The Matchless Tragedy

Caught in a Squall

As the holiday season draws to a close, it seems apt to look at summer holidays in times past.

A recent PastScape correspondent, Mr Simon Williams, drew my attention to the Matchless, lost in Morecambe Bay in 1894, an example of a wreck largely overlooked by history because she was very small and the incident, in terms of both crew and passengers, involved the working class. On 3rd September a little fishing vessel of ‘Lancashire nobby’ type, working as a pleasure craft for the holiday season, took out a party of visitors who had left behind their lives in the textile mills across the Pennines for a week. Crossing the Bay on an excursion to Grange-over-Sands, their vessel capsized in a sudden squall, turning a day trip into a tragedy.

Sketch from the Lancashire County and Standard Advertiser, 7th September, 1894, as drawn by an eyewitness to the Matchless tragedy.
Sketch from the Lancashire County and Standard Advertiser, 7th September, 1894, as drawn by an eyewitness to the Matchless tragedy.


Mr Williams, a local historian, has not only offered further information to improve the record based on his researches, but has also turned the research into a very interesting book (available directly from him at, £5). He also told me about another excursion in the same area in 1850 which turned into tragedy, involving a party of middle class Mancunians and their boatmen who failed to meet their boat at the end of a day out at Grange-over-Sands.

These two stories reveal that opportunities for leisure filtered down the classes within the space of half a century. In between 1850 and 1894 we see mass tourism taking off. By the same token, a shipping accident could impact on huge numbers of people simultaneously: several hundred lost their lives when the Princess Alice went down in the Thames in 1878, drowned, pulled down by weeds, trapped in the wreckage, or poisoned by raw sewage.

At an earlier date fewer numbers were involved, since opportunities for leisure were confined largely to the gentry. Our earliest account of a wreck involving an excursion party was in 1733 when ’13 or 14 gentlemen and ladies, having been at Mr Weld’s seat’ and their boat capsized off Weymouth in an accident very similar to the Matchless. From a fairly early date owners of fishing vessels exploited the possibility of supplementing their income by taking on these well-heeled passengers: at Berwick-upon-Tweed in 1739, ‘two masters of fishing smacks, to wit, Hanks and Stebbing, with a young gentleman from London, and three servants, going to take their pleasure in a boat at sea near Berwick, the boat was cast away, and every soul lost.’

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, we see a number of accidents on the Yorkshire coast as Scarborough and other Yorkshire resorts became fashionable. The dangers of such excursions extended beyond squalls to human error, as one such incident at Whitby in 1802 demonstrates.

The account is injected with a vein of grim humour:

‘On the 6th inst. a sailing boat, with 7 persons in her, belonging [to] Whitby, was . . . nearly cut in two, by a vessel under full sail coming out of the harbour. Some saved their lives by swimming; others were picked up alive by boats: amongst the latter was a ci-devant serjeant of the Durham militia, who had nearly left his “blooming bride” of fourscore to lament his premature death.’

It is notable that most of these incidents took place in September rather than earlier in the summer, but then, of course, in the 19th century, the extent of the holiday season was influenced by the “Wakes weeks” in which factories closed down at different times in different places. It was also not defined by compulsory education in the way it is now.